Over the years I’ve written a few manifestos about college sports south of the border, mostly about the workings of the National Collegiate Athletics Association, also called the NCAA. The NCAA manages college football, among other sports. Previously being a fan of NFL football, every spring the pro league conducts what is very likely the biggest non-story in sports: the college football draft.
The draft, which was again conducted this past week, includes seven rounds of player selection from the NCAA ranks onto NFL rosters, generally based on how the NFL teams performed the year previous. The worst team drafts first…thus in theory last year’s worst NFL team gets this year’s best college prospect. The second worst team gets the second best prospect and so on.
Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, hype surrounding the NFL college draft grew. “Inflated” might actually be a better word…inflated with hot air, as exaggeration and wishful thinking about these 22 year old college prospects exploded.
Their salaries exploded too. Despite the fact none of these young men ever played professional sports, the first round draft picks in particular could expect to sign contracts ranging from $40 million to $65 million although they’d never played a single snap in the NFL. This was mostly due to professional agents and television networks exaggerating the NCAA’s quality and NFL teams employing wishful thinking when examining prospects.
What it boils down to is that, because Player A can excel while playing against boys on the gridiron, doesn’t mean he’ll excel against men.
However, every year many NFL teams set records for draft incompetence. First round prospects in particular pocket tens of millions of dollars while performing incompetently on the field.
Take quarterback Robert Griffin III, also affectionately referred to as RG III, highly touted as a “duel-threat” scrambling QB out of Baylor. He was drafted #2 overall by the Washington Redskins in 2012 and played the 2012-13 season; he was plagued by inconsistent play and an indifferent attitude and was cut from the roster in 2015; he walked away with his four-year, $21.1 million contract with a $13.8 million signing bonus. By 2016, he was out of the NFL.
Then you can take JaMarcus Russell, another highly touted “dual threat” who made the most of his excellent run as QB at Louisiana State University (he had one good season). He was drafted first overall in 2007, which means he was perceived as the best player, by the Oakland Raiders and signed a $61 million contract with $32 million guaranteed. Over the next three years he made a reputation for fumbling and throwing interceptions and in 2010 the Raiders cut him. He walked away with his $61 million and never played another down in the NFL (he was known to also have a serious attitude problem).
Then there’s Ryan Leaf, and if you know anything about the last 20 years of NFL football, you know exactly what I’m about the say. Leaf was drafted second overall in 1998, behind only Peyton Manning, who’s a lock for the Hall of Fame. The San Diego Chargers gave Leaf a $31.25 million contract, including a guaranteed $11.25 million signing bonus. In four years in the NFL Leaf had a 48 per cent completion percentage (65 is considered acceptable) and had a TD to Interception ratio of 14-36 (a 2-1 ratio is generally considered acceptable, but not necessarily for someone drafted second overall). Leaf had a horrible attitude and was disinterested in learning how to be a better player. Leaf retired in 2001 and from 2009 on was arrested several times for burglary, theft and drug charges. On Sept. 9, 2014 he was sentenced to five years in jail.
In all three cases above, the players’ attitude problems could easily have been documented prior to them entering pro football. But at least they got their millions of dollars.
Stu Salkeld is editor of The Wetaskiwin Pipestone Flyer and writes a regular column for the newspaper.